When the pandemic hit, we stopped vacation planning, but we already had our air travel booked for this summer. That meant that I was going to try to do the unthinkable: get my money back from an airline. I honestly never expected that it would happen. But this past week, we got our moolah back! After 8 days of clicking and refreshing, we got a full refund with American Airlines.
I’m talking cold, hard cash!
OK, fine. I’m talking three separate refunds processed to a single credit card because absolutely nothing was simple about the refund process. The entire time I kept thinking about how easy it is for airlines to take our money and how daunting it is to try to get it back.
After posting my success on Twitter and making the cataclysmic mistake of tagging American Airlines, I learned that people have questions about how to get an airline refund due to Coronavirus.
(I also learned that I will never manage social media for an airline because people are downright mean and rude and, uh, don’t really stop to read. But that’s another story!)
I thought I’d share how the plane ticket refund process worked for us in the middle of this pandemic. In return, you can help me plan our next steps. Basically, I’m hoping you’ll tell me how to spend (or save) our money!
The Trip We Cancelled Due To COVID-19
On New Year’s Day, I woke up staring down the end of winter break. Wanting something to look forward to for the second half of the school year, I started pricing flights. Specifically, I wanted to go back to Montreal.
Last year, we took a two-week road trip through Canada. Seeing my best friend and her baby was the main reason, but we visited a few other places along the way, too. Since we did the major sightseeing last year (and had no desire to be stuck on a highway closure for SIX hours again), we decided to fly. The deal I found on January 1, 2020 seemed good. Dare I say too good to be true? (::sobs quietly::) I grabbed my Citi AAdvantage credit card and booked three nonstop tickets from Chicago to Montreal.
Since I booked those nonrefundable flights, all sorts of things changed. The economy sputtered, a pandemic broke out, a full-on job crisis unfolded, and all sorts of other things happened (homicidal hornets?!). Our state is still under lockdown, and the border between Canada and the United States is more or less closed. Up until very recently, the hotel we intended to stay at would not even show a reservation calendar for our five-day stay in June.
Why We Canceled Our Trip to Canada
For months, I was really on the fence about what to do. As time dragged on, though, it seemed more and more like the vacation wasn’t happening.
My Mental List
- Booked trip long before anyone knew any of this might happen
- Living in an actual pandemic
- US/Canadian border is closed for non-essential travel
- Illinois under stay-at-home order
- United States travel advisory against all non-essential travel
- Canadian travel advisory against all non-essential travel
- 14-day quarantine after traveling is nearly 3x the length of our stay
- Hotels closed with a chance of reopening
- Masks required on planes but social distancing impossible
- Three-hour flight with toddler in a mask seems like a circle of hell
Most importantly, my best friend is really wary of the reopening. For me, that was enough to know that it wasn’t the right time to take the trip. But because of the other items in my list, I thought maybe it possibly entitled us to a refund. Of course, the refund rules are clear as mud. The link directs you to a page of general niceties about keeping planes clean and putting their customers first. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I decided to explore the refund option more.
Deciding to Cancel
Initially, I heard that if you wanted a refund, it was prudent to let the airline cancel your flight. March, I waited. April, I waited. Finally, May rolled around, and I actually canceled our trip to Canada.
I pulled the plug on the trip when I learned that American was offering a travel voucher for flight cancellations. This was appealing because I booked the cheapest ticket possible with dollars (not points) and didn’t take out travel insurance. A voucher seemed like a gift from the airline gods (who are notorious jerks about any kind of customer service).
While the vouchers weren’t totally ideal, I certainly hope to travel again and the vouchers came with a generous expiration. With Canada starting to reopen, I wondered if that would jeopardize our ability to cancel, even for a voucher. After a few more days of debate, I clicked cancel.
How We Turned a Travel Voucher into a Cash Refund
I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of this feels like straight up luck. Not the “you make your own luck” kind of luck either. I don’t know for certain why American Airlines approved our refund request (we had a long list of legitimate reasons!). But based on the conversation I was pulled into on Twitter, I think I know why we fared better than other people…in addition to being very lucky.
The Right Time and Place
The fact that we booked our trip months before COVID-19 was a concern is worth noting. Additionally, our trip date was only weeks away from when I clicked cancel. Prior to my cancellation, the trip had been modified several times by the airline, but only slightly. Time seemed to be on our side and locations, too. A lot of people who are requesting American Airline refunds seem to be flying domestically within the United States. So time and place seem to be significant.
I don’t have any real status to speak of. In fact, we only fly American maybe once a year (if Southwest doesn’t have a better deal!). I have a branded credit card, but not a fancy one. What really seemed to help was the fact that we booked directly through the airline. Based on the Twitter debacle I tagged my way into, I’ve learned that it’s much more difficult to navigate the refund waters with a third-party site.
Follow All the Steps
I hate to accuse anyone of having less-than-stellar intentions. But…
I do think that getting an airline refund is a lot like filling out a rebate. Companies will take any excuse or reason to keep their cash. Could American Airlines make it simpler to request a refund? Heck yes. Do I think they should? Absolutely. Will they? Hahahahaha.
When I first started looking at how to change or cancel a flight, I noticed that American added a Cancel button to our trip itinerary. I was gobsmacked at the convenience. Then, I quickly realized that pushing the Cancel Trip button would get me a travel voucher and nothing more.
You actually have to switch over to the refund request part of the website and battle several pop-ups before you can submit a request for a refund. What is really important to note is that you have to request a refund by ticket, not by trip. That meant that I actually had to fill out a refund request form three separate times. After giving myself a quick pat on the back for finding the refund screen, I was practically pounding on my own back in celebration for noticing that requirement, too.
This process was slow. The initial email I got said that I my request would be reviewed, promising to update my refund status within 24 hours. After 24 hours, I clicked the link to check the status and my computer all but laughed at me. The screen said that due to the backlog, refunds would now take up to 7 days. On the 8th day, our refund request was approved. I checked the site first, and I did also get an email confirmation later that day.
People are shockingly mean to airlines on social media. I get the vitriol. But I think a lot of what I read online should definitely be filed under “think, don’t say.” Do people really think someone is going to try to help you when you’re throwing insults and cussing? I do think social media is an effective (and maybe awkward) way to sort of bypass the line and get your issues heard. But how you voice your issues matters. If you wouldn’t want someone screaming in your face, don’t scream in theirs. Even if it’s just a logo on Twitter and not an actual face.
Other Options for an American Airlines Refund I’m Glad We Didn’t Have to Pursue
I was really torn when I requested our refund. On one hand, I felt like we had many really compelling reasons to cancel the trip and receive a refund. However, I also know that airlines basically say if you yourself are not dead, you are not getting your money back. So I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to poke the bear after they OKed the travel voucher. As I anxiously refreshed the page for a week, I did start to consider other options to get a plane ticket refund.
File a Credit Card Dispute
I’ve filed a credit card dispute once before (not air travel related!), and it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s not terribly painful, but it takes some time and some follow-up. At least it did in my previous experience. Still, if I was really certain that I wouldn’t be traveling and I had a list of reasons like this, I think I might have filed a dispute.
File a Claim with the US Department of Transportation
The US Department of Transportation says that airlines have to offer refunds. But if you read more, it seems that’s only if they cancel the flight. I didn’t really have a leg to stand on in that regard, since I broke up with American, not the other way around. For posterity, I clicked open the complaint form. Again, it didn’t seem impossible, but I could tell that it would take some time.
What Do We Do With Our American Airlines Refund Money?
Let me get one thing out of the way. Our emergency fund is stocked and our jobs are secured for another year. No one knows what classrooms will look like come August, but we do both have contracts for another year.
So that leaves us with a question: What do we do with our refund money?
Part of me thinks I will just toss it in an Ally bucket or a SoFi vault to earmark for future travel. But future travel could be quite a ways away. Not only am I totally unclear as to what is reopening when, I’m pretty positive the idea of sitting on an airplane full of people in the next few months isn’t appealing. If for no other reason than wrangling a toddler into cherub-like behavior is hard enough without adding a mask to the equation. (He has one. He just asks us, “Why you make me CRY!” whenever we try to put it on him.)
Our Roths are maxed for the year, but a taxable account is an option. Other things we’ve considered are putting the money toward our mortgage or possibly using part of it to do some work around the house. Considering how uncertain the world is, maybe simply saving it is the best thing to do.
So Tell Me…Have you had to cancel any travel plans? Any luck with refunds? What do you think we should do with our refund money?